ADVOCACY MINDANOW: My disastrous moments: Cebu Pac Flight 387 (Part 2)

DAVAO CITY (01 June) — I have to hurriedly write this after my first story about the plane crash of Cebu Pacific Flight 387 was published yesterday.  Instead of the next episode (Davao Penal Colony Hostage Story) for next week’s segment, I will add today a few more notes to my recollections on that aircraft which crashed in Mt. Sumagaya outside of Cagayan de Oro City 13 years ago. I had to add more information following a query from a reader of my last column asking what the result of the investigation that caused the incident was.

I can only sketchily trace the last moments of that fateful flight as I gathered when I handled the incident as crisis manager. My recollections can no way be treated as the result of the official investigation that competent international agencies did. For the record, I was not able to get copies of the official final investigation report.

“BLACK BOX” – One of my primary concerns during the search and retrieval operations (no longer search and RESCUE but retrieval, as it was evident early on that there were no survivors to rescue) was searching for the so-called “Black Box”.  All aircrafts, by the way, are fitted with this instrument, which records all data pertinent to that flight from engine condition to information including voice recording of conversations in the cockpit. It is a flight data recorder of sorts, sturdily made and reinforced to withstand any tremendous shock of a plane crash. In the case of Flight 387, it took us several days to locate the “Black Box” from the wreckage. The airline immediately sent the “orange colored” instrument to some facility abroad (evidently the manufacturer of the aircraft engine) for decoding. An interesting note: “Black Box” is a misnomer because it is usually colored or painted orange for easy recovery.

After a few days, I got word that the data contained in that black-but-orange box were intact and successfully decoded. I was able to read the transcript of the recording.  I also listened to the voice recording of the conversation between the pilot and the co-pilot during those fateful final seconds of Flight 387.

My recollections are as follows:
‘OFF AIRWAYS” ROUTE –Flight 387 took off from Manila bound for Lumbia Airport in Cagayan de Oro City. Instead of going straight to Lumbia, the plane made a brief stop at an airport along the way to drop some mechanics or spare parts for another Cebu Pac plane undergoing repairs there. After a quick stopover, it took off again for Lumbia and since it was not the direct route due to the side trip, it travelled “off airways” meaning, it did not use the “highway” in the air that Manila-to-Lumbia flights normally took. This, by the way, was not against regulations as the flight had filed with authorities and got approval for a flight plan for that side trip. So, instead of approaching Cagayan de Oro from the sea, Flight 387 crossed over Butuan, flying inland and directly in its path was Mt. Sumagaya, MORE THAN 5,000 feet in elevation. That mountain, by the way, had been graveyards of previous other aircrafts, notable of which was the small shuttle plane used then by former AFP Chief of staff and presidential candidate Rene de Villa. (Of course, “Manong” Rene was not on board when the aircraft disappeared in one fateful flight.) From accounts, Mt. Sumagaya was almost always blanketed with clouds during that time of the year. As soon as they passed over that point, aircrafts approaching for landing at Lumbia would start descending.  The so-called “landing plate” or reference point for approaching aircrafts start from there and they commence their descent from that point, usually at 5,000 feet.

ZERO VISIBILITY — From my recollections if I start reconstructing what happened inside the cockpit from what I heard in the recording, Flight 387 entered thick clouds as it passed through the area of Mt. Sumagaya. At visibility zero, I could hear the co-pilot saying to the pilot: “May bundok yata sa area na ito, Sir”. Or words to that effect. Then I could hear the sound of ruffles and shuffling of papers, evidently, the person was probably checking on the ATO map for elevation check or doing his routine flight manual checklist. A pilot’s voice was heard saying: “Leveling at 5,000”. A few seconds later, suddenly a shrill electronic voice from the aircraft’s computer started shouting: “Terrain, terrain. Pull up; pull up, woof, woof! ” THEN TOTAL AND DEAD SILENCE. Those were to be the final moments.

OBSERVATIONS –On what transpired, I have a layman’s observation – or critique, if you may– to make, although to some this may not be welcome considering that many of us, most especially the airline, families of the pilots and  crew and the  ill-fated passengers have already moved on and have left those tragic moments behind them. But I’ll take that chance.

PILOT ERROR?–For one, I was made to understand that pilots had to maintain visibility all throughout as they approached for landing, especially from the so-called “landing plate”. In other words, they had to fly above the clouds, maintaining full visibility up to the airport vicinity.  In the case of Flight 387, the pilots entered the zero visibility zone as they approached. I was also told later by someone that when flights are “off airways” and therefore usually not as closely tracked by the control center as those “along airways”, they had to do visibility flying and not enter thick clouds. Why the Flight 387 young and former Air Force pilots did otherwise could not be explained.

ERRONEOUS ATO MAP –Secondly, I checked the standard ATO map used by pilots at that time and I was shocked to see that the elevation indicated in the spot of Mt. Sumagaya in that map was not an accurate elevation data: I found a lesser elevation number in the map than its actual height. At zero visibility flying, an erroneous ATO map could be misleading to pilots believing that they were still safely above the highest point when in fact they were in a collision course with the terrain ahead. Then that “landing plate” indicator in the map was just in the vicinity of Mt. Sumagaya. That could explain why Flight 387 pilots probably thought they were still safe maintaining 5,000 feet altitude en route to Lumbia unaware that they were flying right smack into the waiting hillside at a cruising speed. I also gathered then that pilots had to maintain at least 10 percent altitude allowance from the highest elevation en route. In other words, if the pilots were knowingly cruising at 5,000 altitude, their calculation was that the highest elevation in the area was at 4,500 feet more or less. But then again, Mt. Sumagaya was tragically more than 5,000 ft.!

That could probably also explain why other smaller aircrafts went confidently cruising in zero visibility in that same route and ending up slamming on the same mountainside.

ALMOST MAKING IT! – When I visited the wreckage site of the aircraft during our operations, I was almost dumbfounded. The aircraft almost made it. It hit the topmost ledge of the mountainside, almost clearing the highest point by only a few feet. Almost but not quite! In fact, some of the wreckage and body parts were recovered from the other side of the ledge. I could picture in my mind the futile attempt of pilots to “pull up, pull up” the plane’s control levers as dictated by the computers at the last moments. During my last flyover by helicopter weeks after the accident over the area, I re-named the site as “Mount 387”. To this day, a memorial site still stands at Ground Zero.

SOMEONE GOOFED? –A final point I HAVE to disclose here.  Although this is not the first time I made this public. I got curious again sometime long after that incident and looked again at a REVISED ATO map and I noticed there was a change or rectification of that elevation data in the Mt. Sumagaya area.  I got some shivers thinking my suspicions were validated: that some mistake in the previous maps had been indeed found. And quietly rectified. Well and good. That would prevent similar accidents in the future.  But don’t you think we owe it to all those lost lives to pin some responsibility to whoever goofed? And prevent similar tragic mistakes to unnecessarily take away precious lives?  Just thinking aloud.